Vietnam War drama, boxing comedy open at Bates College in Lewiston on Oct. 10

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LEWISTON — This fall’s theater schedule at Bates College includes two plays presented as thesis projects by senior theater majors.

Gunnar Manchester of Rehoboth, Mass., stars in Susan Felder’s two-character Vietnam War drama “Wasteland” in performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 10-11, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12, in the Black Box Theater, 305 College St. Felder will answer audience questions following the Friday and Saturday performances.

For his thesis project, Jonathan Schwolsky of North Caldwell, N.J., directs Richard Maxwell’s “Boxing 2000,” with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday, Nov. 14-16, in Gannett Theater, 305 College St.

Both plays are open to the public at no cost. For more information, call 207-786-6161.

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More than 96 percent of Bates students complete a senior thesis. For theater majors, the thesis process involves both putting on a challenging production and detailing the process in a written component.

For Manchester, the character of Joe in “Wasteland” presented a challenge. Though he has extensive experience in theater at Bates, “‘Wasteland,'” he said, “is unlike anything I’ve ever done before.”

Although the cast comprises two characters, Manchester is the only actor to appear on stage throughout the 90-minute play. He plays a politically liberal POW during the Vietnam War who, at the start of the play, has been alone in an underground cell for six months. Then another American soldier, the conservative Joe Riley, is placed in an adjacent cell.

Although Joe and the audience never see Riley, he hears his fellow prisoner’s voice through a vent in the wall. Riley is voiced by Psychology Assistant in Instruction Brian Pfohl, whose lines will be amplified through a speaker in the “vent” as he delivers them offstage. As two years go by, Joe and Riley develop a bond despite their drastically different backgrounds and ideologies.

“Wasteland” is directed by Katalin Vecsey, senior lecturer in the theater program and Manchester’s thesis adviser.

While Manchester has been heavily involved in Bates theater, he has most often worked in comedy. He is a leading member of both the Strange Bedfellows, Bates’ improv comedy group, and the Robinson Players, Bates’ student theater organization. His role in “Wasteland” is more dramatic and deals with, among other things, political division, war, loneliness and despair.

However, he noted that the play sends a message that humor and hope can help, “no matter how dark things get.” He said, “You’ve got to keep hope going.”

For Schwolsky, the challenge of directing a production for senior thesis is an opportunity to collaborate and experiment. In “Boxing 2000,” a young man, Freddie (Will Dunbar ’15), pursues underground boxing with the help of his older brother JoJo (Alex Moscovitz ’16).

The play uses boxing culture as the framework for a discussion about masculinity and community. As director, Schwolsky sought actors who would bring in their own ideas about the play. “The director is not the one in charge, but the one with the vision,” he said.

Schwolsky also feels a personal connection to the boxing culture in the play, a culture he said is present in his hometown in New Jersey. To prepare for the production, he attended an amateur boxing match and talked with people in the Boonton, N.J., boxing community.

Last spring, Schwolsky read 14 works by playwright Maxwell to prepare for his thesis. He was drawn to the colloquial language and universal message in “Boxing 2000.” Maxwell himself directed the original production of the play with the goal of mimicking reality as closely as possible. His actors spoke simple, often mundane dialogue in monotones.

As he directs the play, Schwolsky hopes to take inspiration from Maxwell’s vision and expand upon it with his personal vision. He collaborated with professional set designer Simon Harding to design the unusual two-tiered set. The audience will surround and look up at a 5-foot-tall square platform in the center of the theater, where the action will take place.

Schwolsky hopes that “Boxing 2000” will affect each audience member differently and make them ask questions about their own lives. “Anyone can see this show and come out thinking something different,” he reflected. “And that is fascinating to me.”

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